Amtrak Wants to Give You Fast Wi-Fi, Even If Trains Are Slow

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Amtrak, the country's inter-city passenger and high-speed rail service, is considering joining the 21st Century when it comes to fast, reliable Internet connections even though its trains are sometimes anything but.

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation is considering upgrading its free, on-board Wi-fi service for trains running on the super-busy Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston and Washington, DC.

Amtrak has announced it's seeking bids for an overall upgrade of its dedicated track-side wireless network to provide high-capacity, broadband service. Amtrak wants to increase the speed of on-board Wi-Fi connections to approach what its customers expect when they connect to the Internet elsewhere. The new system will also be designed to fill in the current gaps in service along the ride.

Amtrak wants to begin with a test project to see what happens when it increases available bandwidth per train from 10Mbps today to a minimum of 25 Mbps (and scalable to even faster speeds as technology advances). Results from those tests will be used to determine whether it is technically and financially feasible to construct such a network along the entire 457-mile NEC.

Currently, AmtrakConnect offers free basic Wi-Fi service in select trains and stations throughout the country. But, there's a catch. According to the explanation on Amtrak's Web site:

"Our mobile Wi-Fi network relies on bandwidth provided by cellular carriers who have towers along our routes. The bandwidth available from these towers is limited and our speed may not match what you are used to receiving from stationary Wi-Fi networks such as your home or office. This free amenity supports general web browsing activities only. Our Wi-Fi does not support high-bandwidth actions such as streaming music, streaming video or downloading large files."

For riders, Amtrak Wi-Fi connections have proven elusive and painfully slow. Utilizing cellular connections from other sources, including those from all four major U.S. cellular carriers, also provided disappointing results. But, most riders depend on the use of personal Wi-fi hotspots which connect to nearby cellular towers operated by  Verizon Wireless  ( VZ), AT&T ( T),  Sprint ( S) and T-Mobile  ( TMUS).

Amtrak's marketing chief Matt Hardison explains it this way: "We know that our customers want a consistently reliable and fast on-board Wi-Fi experience -- something we cannot guarantee today on our busiest trains when hundreds of customers want to go online at the same time -- and we want to make that possible."

No company has yet said they're willing to be part of the project and no time frame for possible Wi-Fi service upgrades were mentioned by Amtrak.

- - Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

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Gary Krakow is TheStreet's Senior Technology Correspondent.

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